Growing Cranberries in Cape Cod

What is not to love about the cranberry? The color is gorgeous. The fruit is tart but becomes deliciously sweet when cooked with sugar or honey. The plant is indigenous to North America and has a rich history of use, both culinary and medicinal, that was fully appreciated by both Native Americans and the early colonists. Harvested in October and November, Thanksgiving is the cranberry’s season to shine.


My love affair with this berry started as I was growing up in Southeastern Massachusetts, home to the Ocean Spray cooperative. Although there were no cranberry bogs in Padanaram Village where I grew up, we had only to drive twenty miles east, and there we would find acres of fields of cranberries growing along the road we took to get to Cape Cod. My mother often stopped at the old Ocean Spray Cranberry House Restaurant, on the way back from the Cape, to purchase yummy cranberry pastries.


Since cranberries were harvested in the fall, you can imagine how every November, in anticipation of Thanksgiving, our local Sunday newspapers were filled with cranberry recipes; the cut-out yellowed copies of which remain tucked in my collection of cookbooks that once belonged to my mother and grandmother.

The early New England settlers referred to the cranberry as a crane berry because of the resemblance of the fruit’s pink blossom to the head and bill of the Sandhill Crane. This photo shows that resemblance. Thanks to Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh & Muskoka Lakes Winery for permission to include it.


Flowers, Berries, and Bogs

Cranberry fields are not very exciting to look at in the summer. It is more the idea of what is to come that is exciting.


By late summer, if you get up close, you can spy the red berries among the green vines hugging the ground. Okay, this is beautiful.


When the bogs are flooded for harvest — now that is a vision! All the ripe fruit floats to the surface of the water, and suddenly there is a sea of red on the horizon.

If you dissect a cranberry, you will see there are four interior chambers where the seeds are located. These chambers hold pockets of air that allow cranberries to float when fields are flooded for harvesting. The air pocket also causes berries to bounce. Good cranberries bounce and float; rotten ones do neither. I learned that on the first day of Home Ec in seventh grade at Dartmouth Middle School where we learned how to make cranberry jelly and biscuits.


Some cranberries are white. Know that they are still ripe. I read that if you put white berries in the freezer, or cook them, they will turn red as the red pigment, anthocyanin, is released.


Horticulturally, cranberry vines are perennial plants; many have been growing for over one hundred years. Cranberry bogs consist of different types of layers of dirt. The first layer is the naturally occurring clay base. It keeps the ground watertight. Next, is a layer of gravel for drainage, followed by a layer of a spongy, acidic soil known as peat, and finally, a top layer of sand.

The Harvest

Originally, cranberries were picked by hand. As you can imagine, it was laborious. In the 1890s wooden scoops with built-in screens were invented and replaced hand-picking. My friend, Kendra May, has a marvelous collection of these harvest implements.


Later, in the 1920s, a “walk behind” mechanical harvester was invented which is still used today for the ten percent of cranberries that are “dry harvested.” These perfect cranberries are the ones that end up in cellophane packages for baking.

In 1960 a wet harvesting machine was invented. This machine crawls over flooded fields and acts like an egg-beater to dislodge berries from their vines allowing them to float to the surface where they can be easily corralled and vacuumed up by farmers. Ninety percent of cranberries are harvested in this way. These are the berries that go into making juices, sweetened dried cranberries, and canned sauces.

About a foot of water is piped into the field for this process. Water is also piped in before a winter freeze to protect vines. As warmer weather arrives, growers drain the winter flood, the vines come out of dormancy, and a new growing season begins.


These next photos were taken by Minda Bradley whose family farms cranberries in Kingston, MA. They were sent to me by a friend of hers. Thank you, Minda!




Interestingly, cranberry plants were traded by early colonists in exchange for goods coming in from Europe. On board ships, the berries were eaten to prevent scurvy because of their high vitamin C content. The plants were eventually transplanted to Europe, but the soil conditions were not the same, resulting in a different acid level and flavor. Lingonberry or English moss berry are examples of the European version of these sour berries.

Ocean Spray Cranberries

Grower-owned Ocean Spray is a cooperative of over 700 farming families across North America who grow over 60% of the world’s cranberries. The cooperative was started in the 1930s in Wareham, MA. It is not uncommon to see one of these signs nestled on the side of the road on Cape Cod indicating the grower is part of the Ocean Spray cooperative. Finding one of these signs is akin to finding an old covered bridge in the countryside. Both are highly nostalgic for me.


Perhaps now you will have a better understanding of what this message means when you see it on a bag of Ocean Spray cranberries.


I picked a cranberry vine from a field on the Cape simply so I could continue to admire the vine and the berries after I left the fields in September and headed back home.


In 1980, there was a shortage of cranberries, and the Ocean Spray cranberry growers consortium changed the amount of cranberries in a bag from one pound to 12 ounces. This is good to know if you are using old recipes that call for “one bag of cranberries.”  Know, too, that a heaping cup of whole berries weighs 4 ounces. Thus, a 12-ounce bag has about 3½ cups of whole berries.

Recipes from Judy’s Chickens that use cranberries as an ingredient:

DSC_0588Grandma’s Cranberry Sauce



DSC_0224Mrs. Walker’s Cranberry Nut Pie

dsc_0481Roasted Fall Veggies: Butternut Squash, Brussels Sprouts, and Cranberries

textSorghum Oatmeal Cookies with Ginger and Cranberries

DSC_0421Sorghum, Seeds, Grains, and Cranberries Granola

Special thanks to my New England friends, Donna and Charlie Gibson and Beth Hayes for their help with this story. Thanks to Minda Bradley for the gorgeous harvesting photos.


Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram at JudysChickens.

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

26 thoughts on “Growing Cranberries in Cape Cod

  1. Judy, I loved reading about how cranberries got their name, how they are grown, and how they were/are harvested. Thank you!! Recipes look yummy, too. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!!

  2. Judy, thank you for another blog that “ripens” my heart for the season. And, the blog is always so interesting. Thanksgiving blessings to all, especially that beautiful new grandchild. Now you know why they are called Grand!

  3. Judy
    I love your blog and read it eagerly – particularly this one that focuses on our neighborhood-
    So Dartmouth. Is Mrs Walker who made the pie Jane Walker, married to Bob Walker? If so, they are our neighbors in the summer. They built a house near us in Birchfield.

    Anyway have a very happy thanksgiving.


    Carolyn M. Osteen
    Retired Partner

    1. Yes! Their daughter, Tish, was part of our gang of friends who played together once all the summer folk left for the winter. We played in every square inch of Bay View and Birchfield, including the huge cornfields in front of the Walker’s stately home.
      It was so much fun to figure out that author and Bay View neighbor, Erin McHugh and I were making the same pie for Thanksgiving. Please show Mrs. Walker my post if you get a chance. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. See you in the Spring! xo Judy

  4. Judy, what a magnificent article! I didn’t know I wanted to know so much about cranberries until you wrote it and I read it. Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving! You are a treasure. XOXOXO

  5. I loved reading about cranberries. Our family has Nantucket Cranberry Pie from Aunt Connie, who was brought up on the Cape. It is the same pie! I’ve never seen the recipe elsewhere before. Connie took it to every family Thanksgiving for years and while a few of us had the recipe, we never made it when she was coming as she was sure to bring it and loved getting the kudos for it. You other recipe are also inviting and I am planning on making the relish.
    Many thanks for taking the time to write such an interesting blog.

    1. Jan, that is so funny. Nantucket Cranberry Pie from Aunt Connie. Wow! We need to find the origin of this recipe. I just Googled Ocean Spray’s website and there is nothing similar there. Maybe it was in the newspaper years ago and lots of people saw it there. Thanks so much for sharing that!

  6. You’ve taught me some interesting things about cranberries, Judy! Never heard the thing about the name before. Also, didn’t know the white ones will turn red when cooked! Must experiment one day 🙂
    I have baked three apple-cranberry cakes in three weeks – just love having that on hand for a not-too-sweet snack, suitable pretty much any time of day. Or night. I tried adding pumpkin puree to a couple of cakes also, and got a very dense but still tasty result – texture of a boiled pudding, I think. Even with the losses to critters who will not be named, I have So Much Pumpkin from my garden this year! Anything I can possible add pumpkin puree to, will probably experience that modification at some point this winter.
    Thanks for the fun post!

    1. Quinn, thanks for all the comments. My husband and I were out on a walk and as your string of comments came in, I read each them out loud to him. We both enjoyed the notes. He was like, and how do you know her? I told him how we’d never met, in person, but that we read each other’s blog and we converse online. It makes the world smaller. I’m going to look for your cranberry cake recipe.eel certain you posted it last year. Keep on writing and keeping like beautiful and simple. Happy Thanksgiving!

      1. Oh, Judy, I do hope you will make the cranberry apple mosaic cake, because you are such a good cook you will probably improve it and then share the improvements with ME!

  7. I’m coming back to read this again more slowly so I don’t miss anything. This morning is a hit-the-ground-running kind of day. I will say that until I was grown my only exposure to cranberries was canned jellied cranberry sauce. “Cranberry sauce in the shape of a can”~~quote from Ernest Saves Christmas. Thankfully since then my horizons have broadened. And thanks for the heads up about the change in bag sizes. I just discovered that boxed cake mix has also shrunk. Pooh on the food industry. Oh….and Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. Thank you! You were one of the nice people to come out MDK’s introduction of my blog to the masses last year. I am so grateful for the online conversation we have begun. I probably would have been one of those people Ernest was talking about if I hadn’t learned to make cranberry jelly in home ec. I hope you try this recipe. I’ve got all of the ingredients out now to make a batch. You will end up with about 10 tasting spoons in the sink by the time you are through! Happy Thanksgiving!

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